The Other White-Bearded December Saint
“American Christianity desperately needs the witness of St. Herman, for the American way of life is so radically opposed in so many ways to the life of this man and the Lord Jesus whom he served.” (Fr. Thomas Hopko, The Winter Pascha)
I followed my own advice from the November 5 post and sent off for a copy of The Winter Pascha so that I could combat the banal offerings from the world during the “holiday season” with Orthodox reflections on Advent, Nativity, and Theophany.
There have been many payoffs in terms of having advance notice on church feasts that sneak up on me every year — why is it I always forget how many feasts there are in December besides Nativity? But I was especially happy to be reminded that December 13 is the feast of a saint whom a lot of us in the New World have a special fondness and respect for — St. Herman of Alaska, also called St. Herman the Wonderworker of All America, and regarded by some as the patron saint of North America.
For those who are still unacquainted with St. Herman, you’ll find an extensive story of his life HERE.
But assuming that most of us know the details, here’s the quick review: St. Herman was one of the select task force of 10 monks and hieromonks who were chosen by the Russian Orthodox Church to evangelize the new territory that is now Alaska. They left their home monastery of Varlaam in1793 and had success among the native population of the new territory, but there were run-ins with the Russian business interests and authorities and a lot of other challenges. Hieromonk Juvenal was martyred, Bishop Joasaph and his party perished in a storm at sea, and the other members of the missionary team died one by one until only St. Herman was left.
St. Herman established his hermitage on Spruce Island and garnered attention and respect by his ascetic works and his unique ability to connect people to the living faith of Jesus Christ. His extraordinary kindness and sensitivity to the native Aleuts was particularly rare in an age when empires all over the globe were viewing colonies and native populations as fruit to harvest in the most profitable way possible. St. Herman had a heart for the people he served and begged that they be considered by the administrative leaders. Writing to one governor, he said:
Since the welfare of this nation by the Providence of God, it is not known for how long, is dependent on and has been entrusted into the hands of the Russian government … therefore I, the most humble servant of these people … stand before you on their behalf, write this petition with tears of blood: Be our Father and our Protector. … Help us to know what consolation means.”
“In obscurity among an outcast people …”
In his day, St. Herman’s kindness was rewarded with respect and affection by the people in his care and even the birds and animals in his forest home. But he had enemies as well, and many who had no particular reason to keep his memory alive. Between those politics and the usual hectic pace of history, it was many years after his death in 1837 before a real interest in his life and miracles emerged. But even that was foreseen by St. Herman. Speaking to an Aleutian disciple, he prophesied, “Thirty years shall pass after my death, and all those living on Spruce Island will have died, but you alone will remain alive. You will be old and poor when I will be remembered.”
By American standards, St. Herman of Alaska, like the Lord Jesus Himself, was a miserable failure. He made no name for himself. He was not in the public eye. He wielded no power. He owned no property. He had few possessions, if any at all. He had no worldly prestige. He played no role in human affairs. … He made no money. He died in obscurity among outcast people. Yet today, more than 100 years after his death, his icon is venerated in thousands of churches and his name is honored by millions of people whom he is still trying to teach to seek the kingdom of God…
This is so heartening to consider. It’s so easy sometimes to get the wrong idea of what makes a person successful. I love knowing that one lone monk, the last of a tiny bunch who were sent out as a kind of afterthought, is the one who turned out to be a burning beacon through the centuries. I will be glad of his prayers in our present cold winter, and glad to offer him whatever little thanks I can.
Oh blessed father Herman of Alaska,
North Star of Christ’s Holy Church,
The light of your holy life and great deeds
Guides those who follow the Orthodox way.
(2nd Kontakion of St. Herman of Alaska)